Firm Thinking - Episode 3

Dress for Success Luzerne County CEO, Linda Armstrong - 9/25/20

Host Attorney Nicole Santo speaks to Linda Armstrong, Founder and CEO of Dress For Success Luzerne County. Nicole and Linda discuss the program, plans for the future and how the recent pandemic has impacted the program.

Nicole Santo: [00:00:10] Hello and welcome to the newest episode of Firm Thinking, my name's Nicole Santo and I am honored and privileged to be here today with my dear friend and the founder and CEO of Dress for Success, Luzerne County, Linda Armstrong.

Linda Armstrong: [00:00:25] Nicole, thank you for having me today. Great day to be outside.

[00:00:28] It is. It's beautiful, right? Oh, yeah. We need a lot more days like this. Well, thank you so much for coming. Thank you.

Nicole Santo: [00:00:36] We are so happy to have you here. Just wanted to get started by asking you to tell our viewers and our listeners a little bit about yourself.

Linda Armstrong: [00:00:44] Well, I was born and raised in this area in Pittston and the surrounding areas. And when I was young, a baby, my family moved to New York and I went to school in New York up until about my eighth grade when my mother we returned here to Pittston Township. I graduated from Pittsburgh area. And at the time it was the late 70s. There wasn't much going on in this area for young people and there were really too many opportunities. So I don't think the ink was dry on my diploma. And I headed back to New York and started what turned out to be a 30 year career in the financial services. So I was on Wall Street for about 30 years. And then, you know, September 11th, which I don't want to get into, that kind of happened. And I stuck it out for another few years and then said, you know, my life is is has got to be about more than getting and spending. And so I return to my home in Luzerne County, West Pittston, and after fumbling around here, I mean, I was too young to be retired. So I opened I, I discovered dress for success when I was in New York and just thought it'd be a great thing for Luzerne County to do so. And it definitely has been. Yeah, I think so. We're lucky. Like, as you know, Nicole, this is our 10th year. Yes. Actually, December will be the 10th anniversary of the first woman we helped, a really lovely woman named Rachel who came to us from United Rehab Services. And, you know, we haven't followed her up, but it was a great experience to work with her. And since then, we reached about fifteen hundred women for clothing support. And we're doing a lot of other services now, too.

Nicole Santo: [00:02:50] So it's good, you know, obviously being involved in Dress for success, Luzerne County very proud of it. When I came back to the area, I wanted to get involved with the community and I don't know, maybe five or five years ago I met you and we started I think I started as a mentor to one of the women that you served, and it was such an amazing experience. How did you go about how did how does one go about founding a nonprofit organization such like Dress for Success?

Linda Armstrong: [00:03:19] Well, first you have to lose your mind totally. I mean, that's you got to get any kind of rational thinking off the table. And I think what my my superpower at the time was, I'm not afraid of government forms.

Linda Armstrong: [00:03:32] So do a lot of them doing it. I ninety doing the 501 3 c application, doing the bylaws, doing all of this really wasn't hard for me. When I look back at the business plan, that was a little difficult because I would much rather do the business plan and write the business plan. So that was like pulling teeth. But once I got through that and and, you know, periodically I do go back to my business plan. I like everything I wrote, is come to fruition. And it was the best way to have gone about it. The only thing is I remember I was in school at King's College at the time and when I was opening just a success and the my professor, Marguerita Rose Doctorow's asked me, you know, well, what do you think about opening and funding? I said, oh, the hardest part about grants is getting grants like, oh, isn't that sweet? It was really cute, you know? And in a few years later, I ran into her and she had asked me, like, did you think it was everything it was going to be? And I said, wow, no, you guys, what did you think it was going to be? I said, Well, I thought I was going to facilitate miracles, change. Let's watch unicorns sneeze, glitter all over the world. And she said, And what is it? I said, begging for money. I just people see me and walk on the other side of the street. It's crazy. I mean, it's it's what a not for profit is, but.

Nicole Santo: [00:05:10] And you know, so many people it's funny, Linda, I have to tell you, because I've got I have three emails in my inbox right now asking me, friends, coworkers, saying, when can I donate clothes? And so everywhere, you know, obviously you think dress for success, you think clothes. So tell us. Obviously, it's so much more than clothes. Tell us about the mission behind Dress for Success.

Linda Armstrong: [00:05:30] Well, our mission is three fold. We empower women to achieve economic independence. And we by providing a network of support, career appropriate attire and the development tools a woman needs to thrive in working in life.

Linda Armstrong: [00:05:45] So the clothes help us to allow a woman to see what we see in her. You know, the clothes, the clothes, help us match the outside to her inside and bring out that character. We've seen women who we're going for work as sales sales assistants and looking at themselves. I said, what do you see? I see a store manager for women. Our looks are very tied to sometimes how we feel about ourselves. It's true, unfortunately, and it is tied to the way society sees us and judges us. So what we do is we, again, just just help a woman see what we see in her, the hope, the value, and in giving a woman just a little bit of that. Somebody is out there and somebody cares and somebody is going to support and somebody is going to be there. Those are the friendships. And that's that's where the magic happens. So, of course, everybody sees like, oh, I got a ton of clothes in my closet for you. I don't want to turn on your clothes or, you know, at least three times a week I get a phone call that my grandma just died. I'm like, I'm really sorry about that. Oh, that's all right.

Linda Armstrong: [00:07:05] She was ninety five and she's been in that nursing home for 15 years. I finally getting around a clean her closet. No, no move. Move it along what we need and we ask for it new gently worn, clean and contemporary. If it's over five years old we can't use it unless it's vintage Chanel then by all means bring it in. Oh those old Louis Vuitton bags you no longer like. We'll deal with that. But what it is, is it's training, teaching a woman how to pick her head up. Look, somebody in the eye shake hands, let them know that she knows her value. Very often times are women will come in and every woman we deal with is in a in an at risk situation stemming from domestic violence, prolonged unemployment, chronic poverty, drug and alcohol abuse. I mean, this domestic violence, I mean, it just goes on. It rattles the brain what our women are doing. Ninety seven percent of them are raising two to three children on their own. So why don't we take a woman off of welfare? Nicole, we're taking two to three children, and that's how we believe we're going to end generational poverty. That's so important. It is.

Nicole Santo: [00:08:28] So obviously, the clothes are a part of it, but they're the last part of it. They're the last step in the process. And I know from experience working with you, you have so many workshops that you offer, so many different communities of women that you've served. Just explain some of the some of what you've done in terms of, you know, interview prep, interview skills, resume workshops. Just explain some of those things that you've done in the past to help the women in Luzerne County.

Linda Armstrong: [00:08:53] Well, most of the time when I'm sitting with a woman and she'll come in first, she has a job interview where we meet and I'll say what kind of work you're looking for. What do you want to do? I'll take anything. I'll take anything. If you take anything, you're going to be back here in six months because there are certain jobs. There's no way they should allow me to do. Absolutely not. Don't allow me in a school with your children. I just don't do well with it, OK? I love my grandkids, but a whole bunch of kids don't do it for me. I couldn't work in a library. I you know, there's certain things I can't do. So if a woman will just take any job because she needs the money, she'll be back. So what we really try to do is get to the root. What will make her what? What will make magic for her? She's got a struggle. She throws her feet over a bed in the morning, gets out of that bed and let's make her, like, get out lighter. So what does she really want to do? We do skills assessments.

Linda Armstrong: [00:09:55] Yes, we do interview skills. Yes, we look at resumes, but there's a lot more self discovery, a vision board. If a woman could show me what she wants her life to look like, we can. Show her how to get there, there's training, there's schooling out there that it's an amazing time. We live in a great commonwealth and in this area we have such good resources that they just don't know about, they don't know about. So what we try to do is act is that connecter? Right. And and again, then our women feel like, wow, there's somebody out there that cares. There's somebody out there who believes in me who maybe I can go to school, maybe I can do this or that. And I know I've seen it firsthand. When Mom is home doing our homework and our kids are home doing their homework. It's great. I mean, the family is so wonderfully functional when everybody's studying and working at the same goal. So, I mean, mom's got to be an example for everybody. So let's get her to be a really good example.

Nicole Santo: [00:11:03] Absolutely. Now, I know you touched on September 11th.

Nicole Santo: [00:11:08] You touched on you know, obviously I know we're here in September, September twenty fifth on this September. And I know, buddy, I know. And I know that along the way these past 10 years, you you've definitely had some issues to overcome, especially in September. So I appreciate you coming in September to speak with us.

Linda Armstrong: [00:11:25] I'm pretty impressed that you're brave enough to below Boykoff in the Times. Leader calls me and says from a distance, Hey, how are you? Yeah, I mean, September 11th, then my home was destroyed on that 10th anniversary. And it's yeah. September isn't really a grin. And the shop. The shop. Yeah, I open the door and there was a flood there too. So it's floods, terrorist attacks and yeah, I should not be around in September and thank you for reminding me that I should be totally depressed.

Linda Armstrong: [00:12:00] But you know, all through it all you've been so resilient. I think I'm too dopey not to be like, what's your option? You know? And that's one thing in my life I would say choice. Yeah. I don't want to get out of bed some days, but now my hips hurt and I've got to get out of bed.

Linda Armstrong: [00:12:16] And so, yeah, you get up, you put on your lipstick and you do what you have to do in life. And, you know, I know the women I serve deal with a lot more hardships.

Linda Armstrong: [00:12:29] And right after it was in September, that's how I met. A rock was thrown through our shop window. I think we were just open for a few months and a rock was thrown through our window and we were responsible. And I just like, you know, and then the flood happened a few days later. It was like really crazy.

Linda Armstrong: [00:12:54] And I realized that I used our women as an example. And and I was I think it was after the flood. Then I was yelling at my contractor over the phone saying, you don't know I'm homeless. This is horrible. This is this is terrible. Get over to my house. Finish your work. And two women from the homeless shelter came and said, wow, we feel really bad for you.

Linda Armstrong: [00:13:20] And I was like, OK, that just really gave my lunch. I said, you know what I did? Shut up, shut up. You know, because with the grace of God, my idea of homelessness was being in my mother's best friend's house in a voca fighting over allowing her to iron my sheets. I acquiesced and allowed her to iron my pillowcases. Now I've been in the shelters. That's not what's going on there, you know, and with this pandemic, it's you know, I sat with the director of Kirby House with the Salvation Army and and kids there are doing homework on government phones without wi fi, no computers.

Linda Armstrong: [00:14:03] You could drive by the libraries or stores and restaurants with wi fi and see people huddled up. You know, like, let's really take a look at our privilege.

Linda Armstrong: [00:14:13] Right. You know, not everybody is going to fare well in this pandemic. And it's the women we serve those most at risk. And economically, this pandemic is hitting women, retail jobs, food service jobs, educational support. These are the jobs that have gone away. Right. You know, we had a good friend at Katharine's Buy in by Wyoming Valley Mall. They went out of business and I went into her and she used to donate. And she's like, Linda, I'm here twenty three years. What am I going to do? Right.

Linda Armstrong: [00:14:53] So, you know, it really it really does wake up and think, you know, the most the most at risk among us are really going to be at risk. So everybody put your kindness together and help somebody. So how.

Nicole Santo: [00:15:09] Has covid impacted, you know, obviously it's impacted charitable organizations around the country. How what how is it impacted dress for success locally?

Linda Armstrong: [00:15:18] Well, we were given a really good gift. So goes back to New Year's Eve. We have been for the past five years, the recipient of a grant from the state called Workwear, where we were paid a stipend to work with people who receive Tarnoff. And that's cash assistance. And we you know, we got a few dollars to do that. Well, New Year's Eve, we found out that money's gone, you know, sorry, we're canceling the grant programs done. And that was really sad. So the state goes on fiscal years. So we knew that June 30th was the end of the grant. I think it was in May. We got a letter from the state saying, yeah, we changed our mind. We were giving you another year so that that's helping sustain us. But we are down significantly. Our golf outing, my favorite outing and all mine, too. I loved you know, we have a good time to redhead's in a cart for success. Yeah. Links to the links for success. We haven't had that or Dimond's event is postponed. And those were our two biggest events.

Linda Armstrong: [00:16:36] We did a drive by the drive up, drive up diva big sale where we took some of our designer clothing and sold it. We had to clear inventory because everybody is home cleaning out their closets and banging on my door to deliver clothes and I'm not opening the door. I shut out the lights and I hide.

Linda Armstrong: [00:17:00] And and because CareerLink and a lot of our referral partner programs aren't open, we're not seeing the women we need to see.

Linda Armstrong: [00:17:10] However, when all of this starts opening up and with the downturn in the economy, I believe the floodgates are going to open and I'm going to be the busiest woman in town. So I do believe we are the next first responders to the economic crisis then. And every dress for success in the system is getting ready for that. So, you know, we have to be ready to serve our people. Makes your job even more important. Yeah. Thank you. And yours, too. That's right. I can't do my job without you. And it's it's a community. One thing I love about living here is that there is a community and people come out and and want to participate.

Linda Armstrong: [00:17:56] And, you know, I realized on the anniversary of September 11th and going through this pandemic and realizing the political climate and all the craziness that's going on in the world, if you're if you're making, let's say, five hundred thousand dollars a year and you live wherever you live here locally in northeastern Pennsylvania and your neighbor is hungry, how good is your life, really? And if you could look out your window and say, oh, well, ha ha ha, then you just creep you just a horrible person. So I don't know. I just think that if you can't look at a person in need and and wonder how you can help that need, how you can fulfill that a little act of kindness, you don't have to dedicate your life to it. An act of kindness, something directed to help somebody could change someone's life. I've seen a pair of shoes change someone's life just believing in somebody, change someone's life. And, you know, if you can't do that, you know, to the least of your brothers or sisters, what's your life about?

Nicole Santo: [00:19:11] Serving community is so important. Right. And I know all the women involved in Dress for Success, Luzerne County, all of our board members, we all feel the same way and feel so strongly about it.

Linda Armstrong: [00:19:20] You're working for it. And I appreciate that. I really do, you know, put you guys to work. And it's it's wonderful seeing our sisterhood and and with the bag distribution, it was wonderful seeing everybody because we are a bunch of a bunch of social women and we're like, oh, no, can't argue about.

Nicole Santo: [00:19:38] Ok, sure. It was nice to get together. Yeah. Yeah, it was. So tell me what you have on have on deck for twenty, twenty one going forward. Well we will hope to put on at least three cohorts of our Set for Success program where that takes a woman on a journey from who am I, what am I, what do I want to do to basically sitting in front of a job board and interviewing.

Linda Armstrong: [00:20:04] We're teaching our interviewing skills. And what does she really want to do? What is this new economy look like to a woman who's just totally disenfranchized now a woman who used to be our donor, who's now a client? So tables are turning a lot and giving our services and being there for the community and putting on great events because they are fine.

Linda Armstrong: [00:20:31] You know, we do have a good time. I have my dress for the diamonds event already and hanging up and like will be in February. Now, I Woodland's, we we're we're hoping it comes out. We had, as a matter of fact, the trivia question of dress for success. Luzerne County is right now the last event held was our International Women's Day luncheon, a fantastic event. Yeah, Mrs. Ferrymen, Gisel Ferrymen came hugging everybody. And she was like, oh, they tell me, don't do this anymore. I like you. Better stop doing it. The next day, everything was canceled. Everything closed down. So that was pretty it was pretty interesting time.

Nicole Santo: [00:21:10] But will that that is now going to be an annual event to celebrate International Women's Day, right?

Linda Armstrong: [00:21:16] Well, it came to it came to pass that women in our community love to do a support luncheon. And a lot of our women in business come to that. And we have some good surprises on deck and some people that we're hoping to bring in. And so, yeah, so we're going to this pandemic's is going to be over. We're going to celebrate. The first Friday and March will be International Women's Day. And and then we will have our fifth annual golf tournament. Well, we missed a year, but it's still our fifth annual because this year twenty twenty does not count. We are extending our 10th anniversary another year, at least until June of next year. Yeah, because it's just who wants to count this, you know, and. Right.

Nicole Santo: [00:22:02] Yeah. So you have served so many women, you've done so many wonderful things for this community. What is a moment that's most memorable to you in the past ten years? You know, doing this and doing the good work that you're doing.

Linda Armstrong: [00:22:16] There were two actually one just one just happens that a woman walked by the shop. We are on West Market Street and this woman, like, pounded through the shop and she says, I just want to thank you. I said, For what? Like, who are you?

Linda Armstrong: [00:22:34] She goes, Yeah, you don't even remember me. You just moved here and you helped me get a job. I said, Yeah. She goes, Yeah, thank you. I love you. And she ran out and I had some people in the office and they were like, that's really cool. And I was like, yeah, that was.

Linda Armstrong: [00:22:52] And I needed it, you know, like God, the universe has given me that gift when I needed it. And and one thing that and probably the most memorable moment was my my house was flooded in West Pittston and I was giving it back to the bank. We had negotiated some terms. It's a nice way to say foreclosure. It wasn't foreclosed, but we did a short sale and we got out of that house and my fiance and I were moving into our new house. We bought the handyman special that we built in Pittston way above the river. The river can't touch this house. And so we were shopping for appliances because that's the way I do foreclosure. We have to get all new appliances, stainless steel. Right. What do I think I am? Right. So we're in Lowe's and this woman stopped her car and she was looking at me. And I'm you know, I can be snarky and I'm looking. I said, oh, she doesn't like my use of the term black stainless. What's this about? And she said, Aren't you dress for success? And then I realized I was speaking with a client. I said, Yeah, she goes, five years ago, you CareerLink sent me to you and you help me get ready for a job, a job interview. And because I'm snarky and was feeling very victimized over the bank's foreclosure, I said, so how did that go? How that interview go? I haven't seen you in five years.

Linda Armstrong: [00:24:30] And she said, I got that job. I said, Oh, great. And look at you shopping on a Friday afternoon. What are you buying? And she says, I'm buying a rug shampooer for the house I just bought. So there was a woman with two teenage children who went from welfare to owning a home in five years. It's incredible. And I was feeling, you know, when I'm when I'm feeling my worst, I get my most snarky. And my fiance was with me and I got, like, worse than I am now. And he just put his arms out and he hugged me and he said to me, he goes, I've never been proud. Have anybody in my life, Linda, and we were going to Florida that weekend because, again, that's how I do homelessness and foreclosure by going on vacation after buying appliances. And he bragged about it to everybody we saw behind my back. It's like, wow, yeah. You should see what she does. So I've been rewarded in a lot of ways. And and I know we've reached people that have really, truly needed us. And so that keeps you going. So, yeah. Those moments or what does it for me.

Nicole Santo: [00:25:41] Well, I would hug you right now if I could but be right. And where's my tissues. At least I know we're not prepared. I'm sorry. That's OK. And I didn't plan on crying today, but.

Nicole Santo: [00:25:53] Ok, so you have inspired so many people, including myself. Thank you. Who do you look to, man or woman, alive or dead, that you found to be your most inspirational person? Wow.

Linda Armstrong: [00:26:10] My mother was always very giving and there was always room at our table for people that we weren't that familiar with at that point. But people that became friendly and became friends became family. I was always raised with an open a sense of open heart. And I watched my mother struggle and my mother was one of the first divorced people I knew. So it was in the sixties and my mother was divorced with two children. And the child support system was horrible to her. And I think when I think back about why I opened dress for success, I remember as a little girl and I always like clothes. I like to decorate myself. I had a little pair of Mary Janes that I must have been playing in the mud with, and my mother took me to a Buster Brown. So this shows you it was the 60s and the salesman. Was horrible to my mother about the condition of my shoes when I like them, I didn't care that they were little Mary Janes covered in mud. And he's like, with your permission, madam, I'll throw these out. I was like, what are you going my shoes? And I remember my mother's look the look on my mother's eye. And I don't know that my mother had money for bread, let alone a pair of shoes to replace. And so so yeah, my mother, my sister, my oldest sister and my younger my late sister, my niece, the women in my life unicol I mean I, I look at people and I'm so amazed at what you've accomplished and what we're doing and the fact that you give back and the fact that you tolerate me. I know I'm a strong personality. I, I should have a warning label on me.

Nicole Santo: [00:28:10] So Linda. Yes. You're a pro at this. I get interviewed all the time. Yes. Tell us one thing that no one knows about you. I've been trying real hard to keep those secrets, but, all right, he won't see this and I'll make sure he doesn't, but I kind of propose to my fiancee of a surprise and I'm using Jenny Wade, the Jenny Wade house in Gettysburg, as a as a spiritual guide. I think it's time we're of an age. We we ride motorcycles. We you know, we're old. It's time, I think, you know, and I'm so the other thing people don't really know about me, I'm building up. I'm going to be sixty in March and I'm building up. This is my birthday revamp for 60. Well, we have to celebrate. I know. Right. I know that though. Yeah. I'll be sixty on March 30th so. Yeah, that's going to kill me. So yeah. Cut out the part that I, I proposed to my fiance. Steve's a keeper. We all know Steve is you know, Steve is a really good man. He, he just like looks at me and goes you go Bob, you go. My nickname is Bob. Don't ever call me Bob. But yeah. So gearing up to my sixtieth birthday and wanting to see what's next, got to see what's next.

Nicole Santo: [00:29:36] So, Linda, tell our listeners and our viewers how they can get in touch with you. The best way is by email. I'm always reachable by email. I check my email several times a day. My email address is Luzerne County at Dress for Success Dog. All one word dress for success, dawg. Luzerne County at Dress for Success Dog. And is there a website where you have some information? Luzerne County dot dress for success, dog. And I have to ask the question, are you accepting clothing donations any time soon? Oh, covid restrictions, covid restrictions. And the real the real issue is we have a very solid volunteer force of people who are of an age that are most susceptible to covid and they've asked to back off for it a little bit. So if you have new clothes with the tags on them, not old clothes that you've had in the back of your closet that you just never took the day off of. But new clothes give us a call, five seven oh two seven oh four nine four nine. And we could talk and tell them how hard this podcast and I'll be grouchy and grumpy and. Yeah, OK, come in and like the Facebook page, write like us on Facebook and that's that way. We always have something going on. Oh, great events coming up. But thank you so much, Linda. It's been a wonderful afternoon. It's been great catching up with you. It is. Manches, I miss you too. And that baby. Well, thank you so much and thank you all for tuning in. We'll see you next time.


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